We lost BB King this year and so I wanted to be sure to dedicate a couple of posts to him as soon as possible. He was a musician that I admired, loved, respected – and was lucky enough to have met backstage once many years ago when I was a fledgling blues guitarist. He was cool like that. No star bullshit…
My friend Bill likes to recount the story of the 1969 Rolling Stones American tour. A then fairly unknown B.B. King was the opening act. B.B had been one of the Stones’ major influences. And for whatever else we may say or think about them, from Day One the Stones have always been good about acknowledging their influences. So anyway, Bill says that he had no idea who B.B. was that day at the Boston Garden. But he had an open mind.
And so B.B. came on. He played. And the crowd loved it. And the next day Bill went out and bought as much B.B stuff as he could find. He loved his music and from that day on, was a fan of BB in particular and blues in general. But he’s a few years older than me and my epiphany came a few years later.
In my initial post, I linked to BB’s, first big hit, “Three O’Clock Blues.” And he has so many good songs that it’s hard to know where to start. But one candidate is his song, “Sweet Little Angel.” He got the idea from a song called “Sweet Black Angel,” which apparently had been recorded originally by an early blues singer named Lucille Bogan under the title “Black Angel Blues.”
(According to B.B., he took the word “black” out of the song because at the time, it wasn’t fashionable to use it. Cut to the ’60’s where there was much pride in using it). Here’s BB’s version from 1956. Love the hot horn section on this one:
It’s a well-known story that B.B started out as a singer and DJ in Memphis playing blues records. Nobody thought that his given name – Riley – had any real pizzazz. He had for years been calling himself Beale Street Blues Boy which became Blues Boy which got shortened to “B.B”.
I read that when he was in Mississippi he’d break away from driving a tractor in the cotton fields and sneak downtown to listen to blues bands from outside the clubs where they were playing. (He was too young to go inside). One night, peeping through the slats of the rickety walls, he heard Louis Jordan, who, in his autobiography, B.B. says, “made the real marriage between jump-band jazz and barrelhouse blues.” 1
He learned well. In fact as terrific as B.B’s recorded output was, like all great entertainers, it’s his live shows that showcase his dynamism. Now, by this time B.B was touring with a big band all of whom had to dress “like they were going to the bank for a loan.” In 1965, he released an album that was recorded live at the now-defunct Regal Theater in Chicago. B.B. himself said it was just like any other night.
But it’s considered one of the great live albums and in fact was selected for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the U.S. Library of Congress. Here’s another one of his terrific signature songs, “Every Day I Have the Blues.”
B.B. was famous for relentless touring of not only the United States but the entire world. In fact he would routinely spend upwards of 300 days per year on the road. He’d tool around in his custom bus, listening to his collection of old blues artists who influenced him such as Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lonnie Johnson (who also influenced and sometimes played with Dylan), and later, T-Bone Walker. If you listen to B.B’s station on SiriusXM today, you’ll still hear a lot of the older acoustic players.
One thing to note is that up until at least the mid-sixties, B.B. was playing largely for a black audience. But once a few of the more adventurous white musicians like Mike Bloomfield started to give him credit, he slowly started to gain a white rock audience. And then finally in 1969, around the time of the Stones tour, he had his first (and I think maybe only) big hit, with “The Thrill is Gone.” This song was a departure for B.B., largely due to the use of strings.
Next post – BB’s stature grows throughout the world. And my thoughts on what made “B” so great…
1 Blues All Around Me. The Autobiography of B.B. King. B.B. King with David Ritz. Avon Books